Focus on: Ability
Focus on: Ability
By Wendy Sweet
Portraits by Tom Spitz
For many Tucsonans, even everyday activities can present challenges. We talked with four men with disabilities who have trained themselves to overcome even major obstacles.
Many of us take for granted the fact that every day we get out of bed and walk through our home, go out to our car, drive to wherever we need to be, and zip in and out of stores whenever we want. We probably don’t think twice about doing all these things.
For people with physical disabilities, these daily activities are not taken for granted — they can be a real challenge to accomplish.
Tucson Lifestyle talked to four people with a variety of disabilities, ranging from being blind to being quadriplegic. Everyone’s story is different; the one common thread is that they really don’t focus on what they cannot do, but instead on what they can.
Here are their stories.
Tanner Gers — runner and long jumper
Tanner Gers is a gold-medal winner in the long jump, a competitive sprinter in the 100 meter and 200 meter, and he can drive a golf ball 300 yards. Oh, by the way, he is completely blind.
Tanner lost his eyesight at the age of 21 in 2004 due to an auto accident in which a tree came through the windshield and impaled him in the face. The accident also resulted in spinal cord injuries and a traumatic brain injury.
“My entire life I had to adapt to many different changes,” says Tanner. “I moved from place to place and was always the new kid. This was just another change to adapt to,” he says resolutely. “When I was told I would never see again, I said okay, now I know and I can go from here. I am not going to be defined by my disability. I need to use my blindness as a tool to help others and motivate them through my actions.”
It hasn’t been easy. “I had not been told ‘no, you can’t do this’ so often until I became blind,” he relates. “Those ‘no’s’ fueled my determination to do those things they said I couldn’t do.”
Now, “every day is a blessing. People may take their existence for granted as I did before the accident. I didn’t realize how easy and good things were until I lost my vision.”
Before losing his sight, Tanner had always been involved in athletics: soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, wrestling, golf and hockey. He started playing beep baseball in 2008 (baseball adapted for the blind and visually impaired); he has been named to the all-star team twice and was the Most Valuable Player at the National Beep Baseball World Series in 2011.
Thanks to a suggestion from his mobility instructor, Dave Deweese, Tanner decided to become involved in track and field. He started running in April 2011, “taking a Greyhound bus up to Mesa since I didn’t have a team to run with in Tucson,” he remembers.
In addition to running, he started doing the long jump, in which he really excelled. “In 2011, I was ranked fourth in the world and won a gold medal in the long jump at the Parapan American games in Guadalajara. When I was standing on the podium and hearing our national anthem, I knew this was where I was supposed to be,” he relates. “I have been fortunate to have success so quickly, but I have worked really hard for it.”
A member of the U.S. National Team for Track and Field, Tanner spent the summer training for the Paralympic team (the Paralympics took place in London right after the Olympics). The Paralympics should not be confused with Special Olympics, he points out. “The Paralympics are sports adapted for people with physical disabilities; Special Olympics are sports adapted for people with intellectual disabilities.”
In June 2012, Tanner set a new personal record in the long jump while training in San Diego. “I jumped 5.93 meters — just over 19 feet — but I took off about a foot behind the board. If I took off from the board, I would have jumped well over six meters!”
Tanner’s training involves weight lifting, plyometrics (jumping drills), sprinting and practicing the approach in the long jump. How does he run and jump if he cannot see? “I count my steps in the long jump to know when to take off, and someone is standing next to the track calling out “go, go” as I run down the track,” he explains.
To compete in the 100 meter and 200 meter, he runs with a guide. “My guide has to be faster than I am, able to mirror my movements, and be willing to put his personal and professional achievements to the side to compete and travel with me at the international level. My new guide, Jay Slade, is an incredible individual. He truly has my best interests at heart, always showing concern for my well-being as a person and as an athlete.”
Tanner attributes his success to his support team: his wife Rosa, his dad Tray, his mom Simone and his brother Grant. “I owe everything to them,” he says. “My mom provides emotional and spiritual inspiration, as well as fundraising ideas, and my dad’s work ethic is matched only by his integrity. I also owe a lot of my success to Lex Gillette, a blind athlete who is a phenomenal human being.
“I also want to mention my amazing donors, such as Jim Click, who have generously contributed financially to my athletic achievements. I could not do this without their superstar support.” He gives credit, as well, to other friends and supporters, including his publicity coordinator Debye Darling, his coach Willie Caldwell, and his guide’s father Pastor Rolland Slade. “Without my supporters and donors, nothing I am doing would be possible.”
When it comes to day-to-day living, “My biggest challenge is a tie between technology and transportation,” Tanner says. “Patience is the way I get over these challenges. I might not get there as quickly as I used to, but I will get there.”
He uses screen reader software on the computer, which reads aloud as he types, as well as reads the text, for the most part, that is displayed on a screen. He admits, “A Google search takes a long time. However, that trouble and time commitment make everything I accomplish that much more enjoyable.”
Tanner is currently studying communications at the University of Arizona; he hopes to become an author and motivational public speaker.
His current goal is to be the fastest blind runner in the 100 meter in 2016 at the Rio Paralympics. “My potential and my competitive nature motivate me to succeed. I want to achieve so much abundance in every plane of my life and be the best I can be. My motto is ‘attitude is everything.’ The biggest adversary anyone faces is themselves. Maintaining focus and a positive attitude will get you over any hurdle or obstacle put in front of you.”
George Hammel, Professional Adaptive Athlete
George Hammel is a Professional Adaptive Athlete who has gone from being told he would never walk again to winning the Jim Elliott Inspirational Award at El Tour de Tucson. The award goes to someone whom society often considers unable to participate in such an event; it acknowledges the recipient’s courage, discipline and determination.
George was a motocross racer, with many wins to his credit, when he was severely injured in a motocross accident in 1998. He hit a jump with too much speed and was ejected mid-air; with the combination of speed and height, the doctors estimated it was the equivalent of jumping from a seven-story building. He landed on his feet, which compressed his body and shattered his L1 vertebrae. He also fractured his skull and broke both lower portions of his legs, both his arms, and his pelvis. He was told he would be a paraplegic for life and never walk again.
After the accident, George shifted gears and went to school and concentrated on rehab. After five years of countless hours of physical therapy, he reached goal number one — he stood up from his wheelchair. “That was my proudest moment,” he recalls. “I was at HealthSouth in my wheelchair, and I said I was ready to stand up. They pulled me up with a lifting belt, and my whole body was shaking. It was very emotional. Even with my paralysis, I could feel the blood going all the way through my body. The people with me were ecstatic!”
George was soon able to walk using parallel bars. “Seven years after my accident, I was able to start walking again using forearm crutches. Today, I just use leg braces and walk with a limp.”
George took up racing dirt bikes again and won a gold medal at the 2009 Motocross Extremity Games. “I was racing against people with similar disabilities, and everyone was working so hard to be at this event,” he recalls. “There was so much hope, drive and inspiration all around.” He was then invited to participate in the ESPN X Games. “I fell and broke my arm during that race, but I still finished in 8th place,” he remembers.
During his career, George broke a total of 58 bones. When asked if he had ever thought about doing something a little less hazardous, he responds: “Motocross was my passion and profession. When you love something so much, you don’t want to give it up.” However, while training in 2010 he fell and broke his back (for the third time). This time, he had to give up motocross. “It was determined that my back was not strong enough to withstand another impact,” he relates.
George then became serious about cycling, using a road bike without modifications. He had only trained about two months when he rode in the 2011 El Tour de Tucson. His goal was to complete his first 42-mile bike ride in less than three and a half hours and to be in the top 500 riders. He ended up coming in at 2:58:55 and in 268th place. “I was so stoked when I came across the finish line!” he recounts.
George’s leg strength is only about one-sixteenth of most able-bodied males in his weight range, so how does he ride a bike? “The core of my body is very strong, and that compensates for my lower leg lack of strength. Because my core controls my body when I walk, it’s like doing stomach crunches all day long. When bike riding, I use carbon fiber leg braces that are very rigid and go from the base of my knees to the end of my toes — kind of like wearing a ski boot. I use special shoes and have special pedals so my feet are locked in place.”
For George, the hardest changes in his life since his accident have been mental. “You have to train your brain to accept what your body can do. It takes a lot of effort to walk down the street. I have to look at every pebble. Everything I do is focused on what my body can do, whereas for an able-bodied person, it is just a natural reflex.
“During the first five years, I went through countless punching bags,” George admits. “I took out my frustration and anger on them. Today, I have a pretty normal life. My legs operate enough so I can drive normally, in fact, I’m a pretty good driver,” he says with a smile. “My hand-eye coordination is really good, and I can judge speed and distance. One of my dreams is to professionally drive an off-road truck.”
His more immediate goal is to compete in the full 111-mile El Tour de Tucson in November of this year. He also would like to compete in the Ironman 73 in Oceanside, California, in 2013.
George credits his success in life to hard work, determination, his parents, his sister Sarah, friends and rehabilitation trainers. “My parents (George and Rose Hammel, who live in Vail, Arizona) always instilled in me that anything can be accomplished if you want it and work hard to achieve it. My motto is ‘never give up.’”
George, who has had type 1 diabetes since he was 12 years old, has a degree in computer science. His first business, Ulterius Media Group, was sold to Loserkids.com, which was owned by the music group Blink 182. He later started Airbox Studios, which does website design and development. Most of his time today is spent as a web developer at Simpleview.
He trains by going on 20- to 30-mile-long bike rides, and for fun, he enjoys four-wheeling and dune riding, attends off-road and motorcycle races and “hangs out by the pool.”
Since his accident George says he has more patience and is more compassionate about other people’s situations. “Society often approaches people with disabilities differently,” he says. “I think that most disabled individuals (unless they need assistance) would much rather be looked at in the same light as an able-bodied individual. I would like to help show people that you can do amazing things if you really want to and you work hard. I really want to use my story to make a difference in other people’s lives.”
Click Here to view a web excluisve interview with George Hammel.
UA Wheelchair Tennis Team (Bryan Barten, coach)
When the University of Arizona Wheelchair Tennis Team plays in tournaments, it plays against professionals in wheelchairs. That is because there are no other universities with wheelchair tennis teams! “We are the only university in the country with a program like this, offering five different wheelchair teams: tennis, rugby, track, road racing and basketball,” says Bryan Barten, coach of both the tennis and rugby wheelchair teams. “UA is one of the leaders in the country when it comes to adaptive athletics.”
Bryan, who works for the Disability Resource Center at the UA, took over the two coaching jobs about five years ago. He is a wheelchair tennis competitor and Paralympian himself; he is quadriplegic due to a car accident 17 years ago. “I played other sports when I was able-bodied, but I didn’t take up tennis until after I was using a wheelchair,” he relates. “Tennis is very accessible — you can play with people in wheelchairs and you can play with able-bodied people. The rules and scoring are the same as regular tennis; the only difference is in wheelchair tennis the ball can bounce twice. However, at the level we play, we usually play on just one bounce.”
Last May, Bryan and three of his team members went to South Korea where they played for the USA in the World Team Cup (it is equivalent to the Davis Cup for the able-bodied, he says). Another UA player was on the Australian team. Bryan spent the summer preparing for his first Paralympics, which took place in London after the Olympics.
The UA Wheelchair Tennis Team generally consists of four to eight men and women. The team travels around the country, usually playing in two to three International Tennis Federation Pro-wheelchair tournaments a semester. The players pay a participation fee to be on the team, but a major part of Bryan’s job is fundraising to cover the costs of travel, lodging, entrance fees and coaching. “One of our big annual fundraising events is the Jim Click Run and Roll,” he says.
The reasons for needing a wheelchair are as numerous as the players on the team; they may have been born with a disability, or had an accident or illness along the way. “It doesn’t really matter how they got hurt or why they use a wheelchair,” says Bryan. “What matters is how they are training as an athlete and how they are living their lives.”
“Even though we use wheelchairs, we are not confined to anything,” Bryan emphasizes. “I am quadriplegic, but I drive, ride wave runners, ride go-karts, and go gliding (in glider aircraft). The wheelchair just gets me from point A to point B. I am in and out of it all day.”
“We do not focus on our disability,” Bryan stresses. “Everyone has challenges. Just because you are disabled doesn’t mean life isn’t fun and good — because life is good!”
During the school year, the wheelchair tennis team has team practice three days a week, weight training two times a week and private lessons (from Bryan or one of his two assistants) one to two times a week. The team members also usually play one match a week against each other.
Each team member has his own custom-fit wheelchair, designed for his specifications and built out of aluminum and titanium to be extremely lightweight. “The chair needs to fit like a glove,” Bryan explains. “The chair has 20 degrees of camber on the rear wheels which keeps the center of gravity low so the chair will spin on a dime. It takes very little effort to get the chair moving.”
That is a good thing because “you have to constantly be moving the chair while playing,” he says. “Sometimes though I stop and watch my shot.” There is a technique to using the wheelchair and holding the racquet, he admits, but says once you learn it, it is not a problem.
One of the main challenges faced by UA Wheelchair Tennis Team members is access, says Bryan. “The UA is very accessible and barrier-free, but finding a house to rent that is wheelchair accessible can be a challenge, as many homes have hallways and doorways that are too narrow to navigate. Traveling to and from tournaments also requires the challenge of getting on and off airplanes and taking two wheelchairs per person (one for normal use and one for playing tennis).”
People often have a misconception when they see someone in a wheelchair, Bryan says. “Some people talk down to us, or they talk loudly or slowly. Instead of getting mad, we need to educate them in a positive way.
“Everybody overcomes challenges — you just keep forging on,” Bryan says. “We are just doing things anyone would do.
“I am so proud of the achievements of my athletes — on the court, in academics and in life. I’m glad to be a part of seeing people grow and achieve their goals. It is very rewarding.”
If you are interested in trying wheelchair tennis — or already know how to play — the Disability Resource Center (DRC) offers a Community Wheelchair Tennis program that is open to anyone. “We even have some tennis wheelchairs we loan out for you to try before you order your own,” Bryan notes. For more information about the community program, call Amanda Kraus at the DRC at 621-3268.
If you would like to see the UA Wheelchair Tennis Team in action, the Southwest Desert Classic is held annually on the first weekend of February at the El Conquistador Country Club in Oro Valley.
“I contracted an extremely virulent rapid-onset strep infection through a paper cut in 1991,” says Dan Dudley. “The result was ‘necrotizing fasciitis,’ which released toxins into the tissues of my extremities causing gangrene to set in; that in turn necessitated amputating my left hand, much of my right hand and both legs below the knees.”
The paper cut happened while he was on a plane flying from Des Moines, Iowa, to Tucson. At first, Dan didn’t realize he was so ill. He even went to Phoenix for a social event after arriving in Tucson. “The next day I was feeling pretty bad. I entered the hospital early Sunday evening, and by late Sunday evening, my wife Connie was told I may not make it through the night, and to gather the family to say goodbye,” he remembers.
It was two weeks before Dan was stable enough for his limbs to be amputated. “Once the limbs and gangrene were removed, I recovered relatively quickly,” he recalls, adding he was in the hospital for four months.
“I was walking before I left the hospital, but it was a much more gradual return to other activities — particularly those involving manual dexterity,” he relates. For example, it was several months before he could drive, and it took a few months to develop strategies to handle paper and open containers. “Fear was probably the biggest factor in returning to something resembling my previous life,” he admits.
As a result of his amputations, Dan has limitations to his mobility and manual dexterity, but on most days, “these are to a significantly lesser degree than most outsiders would think. The perception of my limitations by others is at times a much greater limitation than my actual physical limitations,” he observes.
Dan has even hiked the Grand Canyon with his two prosthetic legs. “I had always wanted to hike the canyon and around 1992-93 I was willing to take the time to hike it. I am not sure why I wanted to do it as I have always been fearful of heights, but I suspect that at the time it was a way of proving to myself that I could do anything. It was truly awe inspiring.”
The hike — and the need for income to help support his family — motivated Dan to return to work. Dan, a graduate of the University of Arizona Law School, has his own private law practice representing seriously injured individuals. “As long as I remain physically able to do so I want to continue practicing law,” he says.
Dan and Connie have three grown children: Jennifer LaFleur, Molly Dudley and Jess Dudley. They also have three grandchildren: Cristian, Olivia and Chloe. “I have accomplished a fair amount professionally, but my proudest accomplishments are my children and the fact that Connie and I have been married 44 years — despite all of the stresses placed on our relationship by my illness and the repercussions of my disability,” says Dan. “Connie and my family are my inspiration. Without that inspiration I do not believe I would be here today.
“I do see people a little differently because of my perception of how they see and react to me,” Dan discloses. “Some people seem to think that because there is a loss of limbs, there also is a loss of intellectual capability.” At the other end of the spectrum, “people assume that because I can walk, I can do things that I clearly cannot do. By and large, though, I don’t think people treat me much differently than before,” he relates.
Because of the indirect effects on his health from the original illness, “I have to be ever vigilant of my health,” Dan says. For many years he was not as watchful as he should have been and didn’t even have an irregular exercise routine. “In recent years I have been biking or swimming 30 to 60 minutes a day.”
Dan says that today he walks slower and for shorter lengths than in years past. His ability to hike, play golf and walk with his wife changed dramatically eight to 10 years ago, and he noticed even more changes in his ability to walk this summer. “If I need to go more than 100 yards or so, I will use a motorized wheelchair,” he notes.
“Currently, the overarching change in my life on a daily basis is that I have to be very cautious at all times when walking. I need to keep my eyes to the ground to avoid tripping and falling. I must constantly develop strategies to negotiate obstacles that interfere with my going from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ or doing physical tasks with my hand.”
Dan credits his success in life to “an extremely strong work ethic, the gifts that I was given by my creator and the constant and unwavering support of my family and friends.”